With Billions About To Be Spent In Political Ads, Media Coverage Is Crucial In Keeping Them Honest

With billions of dollars expected to be spent on political television and radio ads in 2016, the media's role in keeping those ads honest could not be more important. A recent example in Wisconsin shows the impact and value of media fact checks of ads, a public service for voters that will be increasingly valuable as the campaign season intensifies.

The Wisconsin Senate Race And The Veteran’s Affairs Blame Game

The Wisconsin race between incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and his challenger, former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, has demonstrated the value of providing a bigger picture when reporting about political ads.

The ad in question was released by Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC funded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers’ network. In the ad, former Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) employee Ryan Honl blames Feingold for failing to act on a 2009 memo sent to the then-senator’s office that described potentially dangerous opioid prescription practices by VA doctors. In the ad, Honl claims Feingold ignored the memo and ties the inaction to veteran deaths.

The ad backed by Freedom Partners’ $2 million buy was newsworthy, as it showed the escalation of the Feingold/Johnson race. But some initial reports in Wisconsin media missed the full story. Green Bay’s WBAY and Madison’s WKOW reported that the ad was backed by Freedom Partners and Koch brothers, but both failed to look into Honl’s role in the VA scandal.

In contrast, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided more context for Honl’s past positions. The paper found that Honl, who is a supporter of Johnson, had previously criticized Johnson for the very same inaction he now claims makes Feingold unfit for office. They also reported that while Honl claims Feingold recieved the memo in 2009, “Feingold has said there is no record of his office receiving the memo.” Furthermore, the Sentinel reported that Honl filed a similar complaint with Johnson’s office in 2014, and the senator’s office then referred the situation to the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Contracting Oversight, where “the complaints died.

Lawyers representing Feingold’s campaign wrote to state TV stations challenging the ad’s accuracy, and three stations pulled it off the air. Since then, fact checking website Politifact reviewed the ad’s claim that Feingold failed to act after receiving the 2009 memo as “false.”

Fact-Checking Political Ads

Political ad watchdog group FlackCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania and sister site to political critic site FactCheck.org, categorized Freedom Partner’s ad as “misleading by not telling the whole story.” FlackCheck provides viewers and reporters with tools needed to identify misinformation within political ads. The website lists six main types of misleading tactics:

Misunderstanding the Process identifies ways in which misleading assumptions about the nature and extent of executive or legislative power drive problematic promises, attacks and self-congratulatory communication. So, for example, the complexity of the legislative process makes it possible for bills and votes to be misconstrued.

Misleading Use Of Language features ways in which politicians exploit the ambiguities and connotations in words to prompt unjustified conclusions.

Misleading Audio/Visual Cuing illustrates how pictures and sound can be manipulated to elicit false inferences.

Misleading By Not Telling The Whole Story focuses attention on the process by which political sins of omission, including selective uses of evidence, deceive.

False Logic covers common errors in argument that lead audiences to faulty conclusions.

Hypocritical Attack examines statements that apply a different standard to one candidate than to another or imply a difference between candidates where none in fact exists.

Identifying and reporting on these misconceptions is increasingly important as the volume of ads increases ahead of the election. The Wesleyan Media Project has noted that the proportion of ads that are negative has been steadily increasing since 2000 and that three-quarters of the ads in the 2012 presidential campaign “appealed to anger.” History has shown that negative ads often include false information, but voters do not necessarily distrust negative ad campaigns. In one study published in American Politics Research, researchers found that “negative campaign messages have no consistent effect on perceptions of informativeness.”

While attack ads often contain misinformation -- and research shows citizens often do not make the connection between these ads and their ability to inform on the issues -- there is research showing that fact checks can provide a measureable balance. According to an article in Political Communication by Kim Fridkin, Patrick J. Kenney, and Amanda Wintersieck, fact-checks can make a big difference:

[F]act-checks influence people’s assessments of the accuracy, usefulness, and tone of negative political ads. Furthermore, sophisticated citizens and citizens with low tolerance for negative campaigning are most responsive to fact-checks. The fact-checks also sway citizens’ likelihood of accepting the claims made in the advertisements. Finally, negative fact-checks (e.g., fact-checks challenging the truthfulness of the claims of the negative commercial) are more powerful than positive fact-checks.